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In many ways, the sony HDR-AS200V seems like ideal action camera. It's streamlined and captures beautiful full HD video, yet costs $150 less than GoPro’s closest competitor.. The AS200V is a sophisticated device, too, with features such as digital image stabilization and very slick live streaming capability. What it lacks — other than 4K recording — is an intuitive interface. It's hard to use this camera without uttering swear words. With enough practice, however, you could probably get accustomed to the quirky interface, and be rewarded with great results.
Unlike its blocky competitor, the GoPro Hero 4 Silver, the AS200V has a lithe body that provides basic splashproof protection without its waterproof case. It's quite petite compared to the GoPro-case combination, measuring 3.1 1.8 x 0.9 inches and weighing a negligible 4 ounces. (With its case, which is necessary for mounting, the Silver is 2.8 x 2.6 x 1.5 inches and 5.4 ounces.)
The AS200V case, however, provides water resistance to only6 feet. That's minimal compared to the 130 feet offered by GoPro and even the case-free cameras like the Kodak Pixpro SP1, which goes to about 32 feet. But the AS200V provides enough built-in protection to shoot surfing and perhaps snorkeling.
Controls and Usability: Frustrating
A 1-inch square monochrome LCD on the right side is your guide to navigating menus on the HDR-AS200V, which you do with a pair of mushy, rubbery buttons on the side and the combination Rec/Enter button on the back. The navigation process requires a lot of digging, such as 30 button presses to enable or disable the sounds that accompany those button presses. I often got lost in the menus and found it easiest to eject the battery and start over.
MORE: Best Action Cameras 2015
Two side buttons allow you to move forward or back in the interminably long menu, while the combination Rec/Enter button on the back confirms your choices. Working all three buttons and holding the camera required most fingers on both hands.
Sony's Play Memories smartphone app (for Android and iOS) is fairly well designed, but lacking basic options, such as the ability to change change video resolution and frame rate (say from 1080p/60 fps vs. 720p/30 fps).
Video Quality: Excellent
Whatever its other shortcomings, the AS200V's image quality goes a long way to make up for them. The camera defaults to Sony's Vivid color mode, which displayed the rich greens of the Marin Headlands north of San Francisco during a mountain biking trip and lush blues in the sky over Brooklyn. The AS200V adds enough contrast to make video and photos look sharp, without obscuring fine detail.
The AS200V has two field-of-view settings: 120 and 170 degrees. I prefered the extra coverage of 170 degrees, which is also a good match to the GoPro Hero 4 Silver (and Black) default Ultrawide mode. (GoPro has four field-of-view settings: Superview, Ultrawide, Medium and Narrow.)
I tested the AS200V along with the GoPro Black, which shoots identical1080P video to the GoPro Silver. See how Sony's default mode compares to GoPro's (in the Hero 4 Black model).
Sony's Natural color mode is more subdued and closer to GoPro's, but the Vivid mode produces better photos and video straight from the camera.
The AS200V is one of the few action cameras to provide digital image stabilization; and it works well.
Even though the GoPro was more securely mounted to my helmet than the Sony, footage from the AS200V looks a bit steadier than the same video taken with the GoPro Hero 4 Black.
Night video shot on a dark Brooklyn street was predictably dim.
But the AS200V beat most other cameras' (including GoPros) by brightening images enough to show the street. This made videos rather grainy, but it's a fair trade-off, compared to what the GoPro Hero Silver achieved.
Photos had the same quality as videos by daylight.
But the GoPro Hero4’s special Night Mode setting far outstripped Sony's capabilities.
Battery Life and Storage
Sony estimates 1 hour, 55 minutes of battery life at 1080p/60fps resolution (the only measure it specifies.) That's a tad better than the Hero4 Silver's 1 hour and40 minutes. There is no internal storage, but the camera accepts microSD cards up to 64GB capacity. That's enough for about 5 hours and 38 minutes of 1080p/60fps video.
Just make sure you put the card in correctly. It's sad that one of Sony's engineering innovations is removing the physical mechanism that prevents you from inserting the microSD card flipped the wrong way. In 10 years of reviewing cameras, I've never found one that lets you insert the card backwards.
One shining feature of the Sony HDR-AS200V’s interface is easy access to live streaming – sending live video straight from the camera to a smartphone and then on to the Web. You'll need a smartphone with Wi-Fi hotspot capability, which is becoming a common feature. The initial setup requires connecting the camera to your Mac or PC with a USB cable and running Sony's free Action Cam software to input the hotspot login details and connect it to a Ustream account.
After that, simply turn on your phone's hotspot, select Live on the camera menu, and press Rec. Sony's online directions explain the process surprisingly well. Ustream offers both free (ad-supported) and paid accounts. Video is delayed by about four seconds. GoPro's Hero4 Black and Silver cameras support streaming via rivals Livestream and Meerkat, but only when paired with iOS devices.
The basic $250 kit includes just the waterproof case (SPK-AS2), adhesive mount (VCT-AM1) and a tripod adapter. You'll probably need additional gear depending on your activity. Sony sells about two dozen mounts for situations such as biking, surfing or taking selfies. An extra battery with external charger ($35) is a good addition.
The Sony HDR-AS200V is a superb camera, with beautiful video and stills. Rare features such as digital image stabilization and wind-noise reduction improvequality. But its interface is temperamental beast, especially compared to rivals such as the GoPro Hero 4 Silver. With the GoPro priced $150 higher, though, the Sony AS200V could be appealing enough for some people to override its design flaws.
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Sean Captain is a freelance technology and science writer, editor and photographer. At Tom's Guide, he has reviewed cameras, including most of Sony's Alpha A6000-series mirrorless cameras, as well as other photography-related content. He has also written for Fast Company, The New York Times, The Wall Street Journal, and Wired.